QDear Tom and Ray:

I was pretty freaked out recently to learn that more than 20 2003-04 Honda CR-Vs had caught fire after their first oil change. I own a 2003. I called my dealership, and the service manager gave me a story about fly-by-night oil-change places and basically patted me on the head and told me not to worry. This begs the question of owners who change their own oil. I went in for my second oil change and had a chat with the manager. It was disappointing, because he said he had never heard of this problem! When I pointed out that his service manager was well versed, he said, "Oh, well, we get different bulletins." I wasn't happy and told him that I felt scared and that if anything ever happened to myself or my family, I would sue his dealership and Honda. He told me that he didn't want a customer like me and offered to buy me out (at a fair price). I spent a lot of time researching cars before I bought the CR-V. It's not a perfect car (gas mileage/road noise), but it is comfortable and easy to drive. What do you think I should do? Thanks. -- Mel

ARAY: Geez, I just assumed that those fires were due to Honda's factory gas-grill option.

TOM: It's a tough one, Mel. Here's what's happened so far: The fires have been reported in 2003 and 2004 Honda CR-Vs. And they seem to happen immediately after oil changes.

RAY: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- the folks who can order recalls -- looked into it last spring. And they agreed with Honda that the problem was sloppy mechanics. Honda says that every CR-V fire had a "double gasket" on the oil filter -- which means that the mechanic didn't remove the old oil-filter gasket (the rubber seal) before installing a new one -- although NHTSA's own reports also cite cases in which improperly installed (pinched or distorted) gaskets led to fires.

TOM: In either case, that allows the filter to drip oil onto the hot exhaust system while the car is running, when the exhaust is at its hottest, and . . . voila, flaming Honda!

RAY: So NHTSA closed its investigation. And Honda, for its part, agreed to warn all of its technicians about this potential problem, and insist that they be extra careful when replacing oil filters on CR-Vs. Problem solved, right?

TOM: Well, unfortunately, even after Honda sent out this dire warning, NHTSA continued to get complaints about flaming Hondas. Why? Well, perhaps some technicians -- despite Honda's efforts -- didn't get the message.

RAY: Perhaps there are lots of non-Honda technicians at gas stations and independent shops who just haven't heard about the charbroiled CR-Vs.

TOM: Or perhaps the simple jobs like oil changes are left to kids who are working part time after school and are distracted by the latest plot twist on "The O.C."

RAY: In any case, NHTSA has wisely reopened the investigation. That makes sense to us. The real problem, in our opinion, is most likely either a flaw in the filter design, or that the hot exhaust is just a little too close to the oil filter on this car.

TOM: A true idiot-proof solution (this happens to be my area of expertise!) would require shielding the exhaust so the oil couldn't drip on it.

RAY: But until that happens, Mel, you have to be very careful. You have to either discuss this with your mechanic before every oil change to make sure he remembers, or you have to dump the car and get something else.

TOM: If the dealer gave you a fair offer for it, I wouldn't blame you if you dump it. For most people, the prospect of your car going up in flames is not a worry you need to add to your life.

RAY: We'll let you know what comes from NHTSA's reopened investigation. But meanwhile, those with 2003 and 2004 CR-Vs need to be sure that anyone changing the oil is fully aware of this problem, and how to prevent it. And it wouldn't be a bad idea to keep a bag of marshmallows in the cargo area, just in case, Mel. That way, you'll be prepared to make the best of a bad situation.

Dear Tom and Ray:

My husband insists that the white crud that he finds deposited on the spark plugs of my 1998 Camry are the result of using any gasoline other than his favorite brand. I do use name-brand gasoline, but I tend to stop at the most convenient station, rather than go out of my way for his brand. Am I as irresponsible as he thinks? -- Sherrill

RAY: Tell your husband to get a life, Sherrill. That white crud shows up on spark plugs no matter which gasoline you use.

TOM: It's basically ash, sulfur and other unburned components from the gasoline that get deposited on the spark plugs over time. It can be made worse if you use a spark plug that's not hot enough, but I trust that your nit-picky husband has put the right plugs in your Camry.

RAY: But rest assured, that white crud is not doing any harm to your engine or your gas mileage. It's just that spark plugs do burn down and corrode after a while, and they build up deposits. That's why manufacturers recommend that we do what? Change them every so often!

TOM: And think about this, Sherrill: The differences between brand-name gasolines are so small that the companies have to lure you to their stations by advertising the cleanliness of their restrooms. We think that's as good a reason as any for choosing one brand over another.

Got a question about cars? Write to Click and Clack in care of The Post, or e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk Web site at www.cartalk.com.

(c)2004 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman